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SACD Review

Jake Heggie

Pentatone SACD 5186631

It's a Wonderful Life

  • William Burden - George Bailey
  • Talise Trevigne - Angel Clara
  • Andrea Carroll - Mary Bailey
  • Rod Gilfry - Mr. Gower/Mr. Potter
  • Anthony Dean Griffey - Uncle Billy
  • Joshua Hopkins - Harry Bailey
  • Heath Martin - Ernie
  • Frankie Hickman - Mother Bailey
  • Stephen Thomas - Young George
  • C.J. Friend - Young Mary/Janie
  • Elle Grace Graper - Zuzu
  • Levi Smith - Young Sam/Tommy
  • Jack Townsend - Young Harry
  • Patti LuPone - A Voice
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Patrick Summers
Libretto - Gene Scheer
Recorded Live at the Houston Grand Opera - December, 2016
Pentatone SACD PTC5186631 2CDs 63:49; 63:02 Hybrid Multichannel
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I typically review opera here via Blu-ray and DVD recordings because, like probably the vast majority of serious music lovers, I strongly believe that opera is better enjoyed when seen and heard, than just heard. But of course I'm now reviewing Jake Heggie's new opera, It's a Wonderful Life, from a set of CDs derived from the work's first performances at the Houston Grand Opera. I'm wearing blinders at the opera house, then. Right?

Actually, I'm not sure this circumstance is such a handicap in this particular case because so many of us are familiar with the Frank Capra classic film of the same title. We can easily envision scenes from the film in our mind when listening to a corresponding scene in this operatic version. Indeed, the story is so familiar because of the film's enduring success that most of us will have little trouble in filling in the missing visual part and focusing on the new musical side.

And too most of us will make comparisons between this operatic rendition and the film, and in the process notice some differences: here the angel isn't male but female, having the name Clara. Henry Travers played the angel Clarence in the film and he seemed more human than Clara, who is portrayed here by soprano Talise Trevigne. She is more savvy than Travers' angel though, more angelic, and also perhaps more vulnerable and compassionate. There are other differences here, particularly in that this is Clara's perspective of George's life that we see in the opera.

The character of George Bailey, sung by tenor William Burden, comes across in a similar manner to Jimmy Stewart's in the film, though Burden is a little more serious here, less laid back. Mr. Potter, portrayed by baritone Rod Gilfry, seems a bit more evil and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Uncle Billy somewhat more likeable. The differences in perspective and in some of the characters are almost certainly due to the librettist Gene Scheer. To be clear, this is not exactly an operatic remake of the film: in fact, there is a note below the opera's title that states that it is based "in part" on Capra's film. Personally, I think it should simply say that it is "based on the film". But Messrs Heggie and Scheer would probably disagree. Incidentally, Heggie and Scheer have shared equal billing in productions of this opera, much the way Gilbert and Sullivan did or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Pentatone more or less follows that pattern on the cover of this production, listing the composer first, then the librettist, but with both in equal sized fonts.

Anyway, Scheer does provide a very intelligent and imaginatively fashioned take on this story, demonstrating an incisive grasp of the characters and giving them a spirited persona, while veering away from the film in certain respects. That said, I'm not sure everything in the libretto works: after George is saved from suicide by Clara, there is a long stretch of spoken dialogue as George mulls over what life would be like had he never existed. Perhaps it was Heggie who chose to nix the idea of singing here or maybe it was a mutual decision. True, the general lightness of the music throughout the score would have required a sudden shift in mood that might not have seemed appropriate to the composer and librettist, but I believe that at such a critical and dramatic moment in the story music must take over, must register with impact. Thus, this was an opportunity clearly missed.

I mentioned the lightness of the music and I should point out that portions of it divulge both a somewhat Broadway musical quality and popular styles from the 1920s up through the 1940s: try both the The High School Dance in Act 1, Scene 3 and George and Mary's Wedding Day, Act 2, Scene 1, to cite just two instances. You find here the music is perky, jazzy and quite catchy too. I've noted before, in my review of Heggie's fine opera Moby Dick (../e/eas59654blua.php) and in a disc of his songs (../n/nxs59764a.php), that there are hints of Bernstein in his style and here you notice them again. Often, when rhythms pick up and the music turns a little jazzy, you can hear vague echoes of Bernstein.

That said, Heggie has his own distinctive style, and is not beholden to Bernstein in any significant way. I raise this characteristic to give you an idea of the music's style. But to offer a more complete picture of it, let me say that while the moods throughout are mostly chipper and warmly lyrical, there is also a mysterious or otherworldly side to the music, noticeable in the opening Prelude in fact where right off you hear bell- and whistle-like sonorities followed by sweetly ethereal strings, all invoking a world apart from our own, a heavenly world.

If you've heard the Moby Dick score, you will have an idea of what to expect here, but It's a Wonderful Life is much brighter and lighter, and even more conservative in style. Moreover, it has a magical quality not present in the darker and deeper Moby Dick. The orchestra consists of just twenty-four players, but Heggie gets more color and sonic effects out of the ensemble than you might expect. If you favor accessible, tuneful operatic music, then It's a Wonderful Life certainly will have strong appeal. And you'll find the performances quite to your liking as well.

Both Trevigne and Burden sing their roles exceedingly well, as does soprano Andrea Carroll, who portrays Mary, George's wife. The rest of the cast is just fine. Patrick Summers, who conducted the premiere performances of this opera, and also did the same for Moby Dick, again turns in splendid work, effectively catching the many sides of Heggie's kaleidoscopic score with a masterful hand. He draws fine playing from the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and splendid singing from the Chorus. The sound reproduction by Pentatone is clear and well balanced, and the full libretto is included in the album booklet with many color photos of scenes from the opera. For fans of Heggie (and Scheer) and of accessible contemporary opera, this is a must.

Copyright © 2018, Robert Cummings